National months, for anyone working on media roundups like we do here at Dough Books can be a real catch-22. Sure, it’s good SEO to highlight the best poetry audiobooks in the midst of National Poetry Month, but where does that leave the idea of reading – or in this case, listening? – collections of poetry the rest of the year? Alliteration, assonance, and formal play don’t just resonate in April, after all.
Moreover, while every genre suffers from the fact that there are too many publications for even a fraction of the best titles to receive the attention they deserve, the ability of poetry as a genre to create cultural sparks with even the slimmest of collections means that for every deserving title we could manage to highlight here, a dozen more could have been swapped.
Really: For every Criminalthere is a finna; for every sparkly new release from Warsan Shire, there’s an equally sparkly new collection of Ocean Vuong. Maybe you are a fan of Clap when you land and Long way down Looking for a new YA novel in verse? Well have you tried Kip Wilson The most dazzling girl in Berlinor Amber McBride Butterflyor that of Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam hit the airor even (to get old enough to drop the Y of YA) by Sarah Crossan Here is the hive? Or maybe you’re someone who doesn’t have the patience for books, in which case we might recommend the On Being Project, from Kristen Tippett’s meditative podcast of the same name, and leaves you with more hours of short, beautifully collected poetic audio content than you could make in a lifetime.
The thing is, there’s no end to the wealth you can find when you enter the world of poetry, let alone poetry translated specifically with the aural/oral tradition in mind. So while we hope you’ll celebrate National Poetry Month 2022 starting with one of the titles listed below, we just as deeply hope you’ll use this listening experience as a reason to seek out even more poetic audiobooks on the go.
Because poetry is made to be heard.
That you recognize her from her Lemonade-era collaboration with Beyoncé, or from her 2016 viral poem, “Residence” (no one leaves the house unless the house is a shark’s mouth), if you’ve been a little “online” in recent years, you already know Warsan Shire. In fact, judging by the length of all the waiting lists I have access to on Libby for the first complete collection of the Anglo-Somali poet, for Bless the girl raised by a voice in her headnot only do you already know Shire, but you already have it on your TBR.
Nevertheless, allow me twice to recommend the audio version of Bless the girl…, which Shire interprets itself. Calm, warm and almost meditative, the softness of Shire’s voice constantly draws the listener’s attention with the force with which the delivery contrasts with the violence and trauma she writes about. Equally critical are the Western teenage pop culture catchphrases that Shire uses to frame so many of his poems – from “Are you there, God? This is me” to “At first I was scared, I was petrified” to “My loneliness is killing me” – desperately need the neat specificity of his delivery for the listener to dissociate them from their deep pop roots.
I agree that one of the advantages of the print edition over the audio is that it gives the reader immediate access to the glossary provided by Shire at the end of the collection. But honestly, getting away from most of the terms Shire uses to construct his poems is a valuable experience in itself – and once you’ve listened to the glossary cover to cover, the brief hour and seven minutes will be ready for you to listen again, new understanding firmly in place.
Although it lasted just over an hour, Reginald Dwayne Betts Felon: poems is one of the largest and most extensive collections on this list. Jumping back and forth in time, back and forth in place, back and forth, even, in style, the titular poems bleed in meditations, bleed in what Betts calls “essays on reentry “.
As Betts recounts, whose strongly subdued, rhythmic rhythm echoes the formal repetition used in the poems themselves, the collection as a whole opens a door for the listener to understand, on a more visceral level, the tedious ( and explicitly racist) the inhumanity that has so long sustained America’s obsession with incarceration. Judiciously punctuated, in addition, by the bluesy and distorted sound atmosphere of Reed Turchi’s slide guitar, the audio version of Criminal is a must.
American poet Joy Harjo’s work is so inherently musical that even in poems that don’t explicitly include excerpts from songs or ritual chants, it’s nearly impossible for her to skim through a single track from her 2020 collection, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beingswithout slipping into a sort of rhythmic song.
That much of his work in this collection uses jazz saxophone and blues as framing devices on Conflict resolutionThe figurative journey of On the Trail of Tears, much like the foot dance songs of Harjo’s ancestors, should therefore come as no surprise. Beautifully paced and deeply felt, this is one of those collections where, honestly, the idea of do not to listen to it in audio would be a sacrilege.
After her glowing performance at President Biden’s 2021 inauguration, Amanda Gorman hardly needs us to bolster her well-deserved reputation as one of America’s most exciting young poets. And yet, his recently released collection, Call us what we wearis so good in its audio form that we would be remiss do not to include it in this particular list.
Interpreted with accessible Midwestern outspokenness by Gorman herself, the poems of Call us what we wear capture the current chaotic moment in American (and human) history in a compelling way without being overworked. Longer than some of the other collections on this list, this listen may be best experienced in small bites, but let that be a draw rather than a deterrent. Gorman’s words are rich enough to fill the space you leave between these bites.
the Alliterative Morte Arthure-the poem of 4,500 lines written anonymously around 1400, preceding the most famous by Thomas Malory Arthur’s Death by about eighty years old – is, as the translator Simon Armitage points out in the introduction to his 2012 translation, a demanding text. The tenses change from line to line, punctuation is often lacking, and compared to the magical fever dream of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which Armitage both translated and narrated in 2009), the action itself is mired in dry continental politics. Moreover, it is So long.
And yet, Armitage has pulled from this chaos a striking modern English translation. Moreover, told with such gritty verve by British actor Bill Wallis (who died a year after this Arthur’s death was published), the audio version of Armitage’s translation quite launches into the listener’s imagination.
Between Armitage’s successful alliterative lines and the fact that as a seasoned veteran of stage and radio, Wallis has the uncanny ability to shift the tenor of the text from understated to mystical to breathless to flashing with barely more than an inflection shift, the audiobook experience of The Death of King Arthur is the kind of dynamic poetic listening you’ll want to savor.
The last time I curated a list of poetic audiobooks here at DoughI concluded by stepping out of the audiobook box and recommending the digital, beautifully interactive On Being Project, from Kristen Tippett’s meditative podcast of the same name.
I maintain this recommendation today more than ever; to be is and always will be an audio balm in a difficult world.
This time, however, I’m using my out-of-the-box entry to cheat in a different direction, recommending Adam Sol’s instead. How a Poem Moves: A Field Guide for Poetry Readers. While-technically—a collection of outstanding poems (from an impressive array of 35 different contemporary poets), How a poem moves does not explicitly concern itself with what poetry iswith what poetry can To dousing short critical essays to unravel how the various formal elements each poet uses invoke intangible feelings in the reader.
Interpreted as a kind of duet with Sol at the end of the tests and the Canadian poet Soraya Peerbaye taking care of the poetic performances in between, How a poem moves is a smart, satisfying listen that will make everyone feel like they can “get” poetry too.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa poet N. Scott Momaday posted our audiobook listings here at Dough before – and with a voice so resonant and well suited to the intimate format of an audiobook, it’s no wonder.
His latest collection of prose poems, Dream designs: configurations of a timeless kind, not out until May, but having received an early review copy, we’re ready to say: set your Libro.fm credits/blocks list alarm for this one. We couldn’t imagine a better soundtrack for a thoughtful weekend stroll on the dreamy spring trails you might have within reach.
Alexis Gunderson is a television critic and audio bibliophile. She
can be found @AlexisKG.